Theological Mistakes: Evidence and Faith

miracleI was raised and educated in a tradition that valued a reasonable, logical approach to religion. We were taught that heart-felt, emotional expressions of faith were dangerous, and should be curbed, but that there were no limits to the application of reason to understanding the Bible or theological principles. The subtle implication was that just as God would never lie, God would never make logical mistakes.

Part of this had to do with my tradition’s understanding of the nature of faith. For us, restorationists in the Stone-Campbell tradition, faith was always based on evidence. A faith decision was a logical conclusion made after the evaluation of evidential facts. We could not see God, but observing the magnificence of creation caused us to conclude there must be a Creator. To do otherwise was to be left “without excuse” for our unfaith, as Paul might say.

The key text in all of this was Hebrews 11:1, the opening statement of the greatest faith chapter in the Bible. In the King James Version , this verse said:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Taken at face value, this seems to confirm the idea that faith is based on evidence. The author of Hebrews is surely one of the most methodical thinkers among the New Testament authors, so we should not be surprised that he is a master logician, too.

The problem is that the Greek word here, elegchos, does not mean “evidence.” It is an rare biblical word, occurring only here in the New Testament. Notice how NIV2011 translates this verse:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

The New Revised Standard Version rendered it this way:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This Greek word has a place in the world of legal language, what we might refer to as forensic terminology. But it does not refer to the sifting of evidence to make a legal brief for trial. It is the end of the process, the full presentation and conclusion. You can see this in Habakkuk 2:1, where the prophet makes a complaint to the Lord concerning the suffering of the righteous and the prospering of the wicked. When his case is fully made (and in Habakkuk’s opinion he has an airtight, irrefutable case), he ascends his watchtower to await God’s response. He believes his complaint is justified (the Greek OT uses the word elegchos here). Faith is when I am convinced that my belief in God is true, no matter what the evidence to the contrary that might be marshaled by opponents. Yet when God answers Habakkuk, he does not offer him additional evidence. He says, “Shut your mouth and write this down: righteous folks live lives of trusting me, not questioning me!” (Krause paraphrase)

For every Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict) there is a Bertrand Russell, the famous British atheist. An often repeated story claims that when Russell was asked what he would say to God if he found himself before the Lord at the time of judgment, Russell answered: “I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.” Not enough evidence, God! If faith is entirely logical and evidentiary, who decides what is a necessary pile of evidence in order to demand belief?

I don’t want to divorce my faith entirely from reason, but I refuse to let logic be God. When the Bible tells me that God loves me, even when I act as his enemy, I cannot construct a logical argument to explain that. And when, at Christmastime, I think that a little baby, born in an insignificant backwater village to peasant parents over two thousand years ago was the Savior of the World, there is no logical explanation. Yet I believe. I believe.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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One thought on “Theological Mistakes: Evidence and Faith

  1. Nice! I’ve had many conversations with people about what I call faith decisions and logical conclusions. I don’t think I’ve maintained a conviction that one is indefinitely linked to the other, however I do confess that I rarely communicate what you stated here. Thank you for your thoughts.

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